“..all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable”
Most science fiction fans know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
- Robots must not hurt human beings or allow them to come to harm.
- Robots must obey human beings so far as it doesn’t violate Law 1.
- Robots must not harm themselves as long as this doesn’t violate Laws 1 and 2.
In I, Robot, Asimov presents nine stories within a frame story that explore the implications of these Three Laws of Robotics. The introduction presents the frame story, which introduces Dr. Susan Calvin, who has recently retired from a 50-year career as the world’s first robopsychologist. A reporter is attempting to interview the somewhat reclusive Dr. Calvin, who is reluctant to share her experiences. Through clever flattery, questions and prompts, he finally gets her talking, which gives Asimov a chance to reprint these nine stories which were originally published between 1940 and 1950 in the pulp magazines Astounding Science Fiction and Super Science Stories:
- “Robbie” — (revised version of “Strange Playfellow,” Super Science Stories, 1940) A little girl named Gloria is given one of the world’s first robotic companions, but her mother worries about Gloria being raised by a machine, so she takes Robbie away. “Robbie” is Isaac Asimov’s first robot story. It’s sweet and simple, dealing with Law 1 in the most obvious way and portraying robots as tools made by man to help him with his work. Dr. Susan Calvin makes a cameo appearance in this story. She’s sitting in a museum studying the first talking robot when Gloria comes to ask the robot a question.
- “Runaround” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1942) Engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, a couple of Asimov’s recurring characters, have been sent to Mercury to work on a mining station. When they send Speedy the robot out to fetch some selenium, he doesn’t come back and they have to go looking for him. When they find Speedy, he seems confused and Powell and Donovan discover that there’s a delicate balance between the three Laws of Robotics. They must figure out how to use the laws to get the robot back on track. This is Asimov’s first story that specifically explains the Three Laws and shows that they are not as clear as they seem.
- “Reason” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1941) Powell and Donovan are working on a space station with a robot named QT1 (“Cutie”). When Cutie decides that humans do not exist and that he’s a prophet of The Master, the engineers, thinking that the Three Laws are in jeopardy, try to reason with him.
- “Catch That Rabbit” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1944) Powell and Donovan are overseeing a mining operation on an asteroid and are accompanied by Dave, a new kind of robot that is still under development. Dave is in an overseer position over six subservient (“finger”) robots. Powell and Donovan notice that when humans are not around, Dave and his “fingers” sometimes quit working and begin marching aimlessly. When the engineers try to figure out what’s wrong, they end up in a dangerous position and need to figure out how to get Dave and his team working correctly so the robots can save them.
- “Liar!” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1941) A robot named Herbie misapplies the First Law of Robotics (never hurt a human being) by telling people what he thinks they want to hear. However, Herbie’s lies end up embarrassing and hurting humans, including Dr. Susan Calvin. According to Wikipedia, which cites the Oxford English Dictionary, “Liar” contains the first published use of the word “robotics.”
- “Little Lost Robot” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1947) When a human tells the robot named Nestor to “get lost,” he does, by hiding himself in a room full of identical robots. This is a problem for Dr. Susan Calvin and the other scientists because Nestor is an experimental robot that (for a good reason) was produced with a slightly different version of the First Law. While it can’t harm humans, it is not compelled to step in to stop them from being hurt. Dr. Calvin realizes that this programming could logically lead to a situation in which a robot could actually harm someone. They must find Nestor.
- “Escape!” — (originally “Paradoxical Escape” in Astounding Science Fiction, 1945) In this weird story, an artificial intelligence called “The Brain” becomes a practical joker, using humor to deal with its cognitive dissonance. Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are the unfortunate victims and robopsychologist Susan Calvin must discover what’s gone wrong.
- “Evidence” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1946) Stephen Byerley is running for mayor but his opponent claims Byerley is a robot because nobody sees him eat or sleep. Byerley, running on a civil rights platform, refuses to let his opponents examine him. When Dr. Susan Calvin tries to use the Three Laws to determine whether he’s human, she can’t tell if he’s a robot, or just a “very good man.” This makes her wonder if a robot might actually be a better leader than a man.
- “The Evitable Conflict” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1950) The world is now efficiently run by artificial intelligence. Supply and demand are perfectly balanced and humans thrive. When some of the machines start to make mistakes, Stephen Byerley and Susan Calvin want to know why. What they discover is an entirely new extension of the First Law and it might mean doom (or liberation) for the human race.
I, Robot is an excellent collection of some of Isaac Asimov’s best stories. Here we meet friendly robots, religious robots, prankster robots, robots with superiority complexes, robots that are confused by moral or logical dilemmas, and robots with cognitive dissonance. Asimov explores the implications and the limits of his Three Laws and leaves us with a lot to think about.
The order of the stories in I, Robot makes the collection especially effective; with “Robbie” we start with a simple and obvious application of the Three Laws and with “The Evitable Conflict” we end with a head-spinning potential interpretation of these very same laws. Though Isaac Asimov was optimistic about our future with artificial intelligence, he shows us that even though humans are programming robots, it may be difficult for us to understand and predict some of their behaviors because of the way they use logic to interpret the laws we give them.
I listened to Scott Brick narrate Random House Audio’s version of I, Robot. Scott Brick is always a great narrator and I highly recommend the audiobook.